Wednesday, 1 December 2010


Whales sing at the same frequencies as stars... when you know that, you realise that the universe we live in is integrated and interconnected. It isn't a space of disconnections and dislocations, but instead it is one where we constantly discover and explore what it truly means to be part of a connected world. Social networks and media technology are mere mimicry of what already exists in the world. That's what the whale song reminds us. Let alone the giant neutrino telescopes on the sea bed which are now enabling us to eavesdrop on the sounds of the deep ocean.

Go to the LIDO (Listen to the Deep Ocean) site - - and the whole soundscape of the ocean is yours at home right now. The ocean is as close as your breath. The sound is next to the beat of your heart. There are charts which tell you what you are listening to at any one given moment, so you can identify what you eavesdrop on. Who knows, it could be one of the sperm whales in the mediterranean which the LIDO network of seafloor observatories were the first to discover were there.

This act of listening to the deep blue is an illicit pleasure. Somehow the sounds of the oceans are more radically mysterious to us in this visually dominated age saturated by underwater footage which has probed the mysteries of the big blue that it mainlines into our consciousness. It's like having a shot of adrenalin fuelled by imagination. And this is all thanks to those giant eyes - the neutrino telescopes - on the ocean beds around France, Italy and Greece which were made with the purpose of detecting the cosmic rays which fall from outer space, but which now have ironically become great ears as well. Keep your eyes and ears open.

It seems that particle physics is on a mission to replicate our sensory organs - making them bigger and better, in order to fully comprehend Nature in all its monumental grandeur. The detectors used in particle physics at CERN and Fermilab in the USA are nothing but giant eyes enabling us to see the invisible. Stare at them when they are unpeeled, and even then their resemblance to the iris of an eye is astounding. The cosmic ray neutrino telescopes are giant ears of the deep oceans. And so LIDO was born...through the accident of discovering that as well as detecting the cosmic rays falling down to earth from deep space above, they could also detect the sounds of deep space below.

But that's not all. The LIDO network is also a way of us monitoring the movement of the earth itself - earthquakes seismic shifts, tsuanamis - as well as bioacoustics and anthropogenic noise which are normally inaudible to the human ear. These telescopes are the ultimate guardians planted in the sea like in a Greek myth, monitoring sounds, movements and sights in the Mediterranean Sea and the adjacent Atlantic waters.

And so, we can keep watchful and earful guard on the planet we live on. Thanks to them, we have the ocean on our sitting room floor and encounter a whale as we read in the bath. Time and space - the great dimensions of our world - have been superseded by new technology so that nothing now is impossible - because our imaginations then can take us the ultimate distance. But the question is, will we ever run out of mystery? And if we do, what will our lives be without discovery? Could we live our lives without it? The eyes and ears have it.

Saturday, 23 October 2010


Go hunting for crocodiles, and you will find mirrors in their eyes. Take a flash light in the dead of night, a fair am amount of your own good eye sight, and a great deal of courage, and as you track them down in the Amazon basin, you will discover a 100 glowing lamps in the water and gliding on the river banks. These are the mirrors at the back of the retina of the Amazonian crocodile – a peculiar evolution for these slip-slide navigators of the dark – which scoop up the luminosity of your flash light and reflect it back to you: the hunter turned prey. Inverted sight.

Such is the beauty of talking to a particle physicist, that narratives unfold before you in the course of what may appear to be a simple conversation. It’s like always being in Alice in Wonderland. There is one door open, but suddenly you find yourself falling through one in the floor. Or shooting up to a skylight as if propelled by wings. This narrative had started, like they all do, with what seemed like a simple question. Why is Alan working with neurobiologists investigating colour ? The story would take us to crocodiles, via Pablo and Paloma Picasso, the Salke Institute, Woody Allen, CERN, Louis Khan, Brooklyn and back again – and all the time at the centre of the narrative was the wonder of the human eye. How it receives images about the world and helps us navigate the world replete with matter.

Alan is baffled. For most of his career he worked in physics, constructing the silicon detectors which can see the invisible - detect and track particles which make up the universe. He was bemused when he discovered by looking at biology, that in fact all he was doing was constructing what already existed in nature. It's what drives him continuously to make the link between physics and neurobiology - against the grain of funding and silo-orientated science.

'Look at the detectors, and they are nothing but giant eyes,' he says. It reminds me of my first blog entry when I said just that. But it is more than that. Unwittingly, when building the great hexagons, physicists and engineers were mimicing the shape of the rods in our eyes which let light in - and out - and enable us to see. They are hexagonal too, in order to make sure they let in the most amount of light possible.
The unwitting symmetry between man and Nature is startling. And Alain is now on the quest of understanding Nature so as to improve science and technology.

'Do you know that when we see something, we actually see it in our eyes as 22 different images? But then our brain reorientates these images and collates them, giving us just one.' I didnt. And as ever, I feel inspired to think about how the arts can engage with this observation, as well as wonder what happens when the brain just cant manage this consilience and if there are people who see more than one image when they look at the world. Or whether that is what artists really are - because somewhere their brain is resounding with the memory of the discarded other ways of looking. Perhaps imagination is the ghost of the eye.

'Did you know that Woody Allen always tells physics jokes?' Another thing I didnt know. How we got to this seemingly random conversation is through discovering that Alan, like my father, is a Brooklyn boy, and Woody Allen is too, of course. All 3 are contemporaries - good jewish boys - and Alan turns out to have tried to gatecrash a Woody Allen concert in Geneva by telling a Woody Allen joke to a film crew. It won him the right to free entry. So I look up some of these jokes which have worked such magic:

Saying you know how to get around the universe is like going around China Town without a map

Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart

Interestingly, according to modern astronomers, space is finite. This is a very comforting thought - particularly for people who cannot remember where they left things. 

"She caught his eye, became his mistress, but was also the only woman ever to leave him' Alan again, now telling the story of Francoise Gilot, who was the mistress of Picasso when only 21, but left him, then later fell in love with the vaccine pioneer Jonas Salke, who founded the famous science institution in america, the Salke Institute, built by the extraordinary Louis Khan, who in turn inspired by father. It turns out Francoise's daughter by Picasso, Paloma, is now the fundraiser for the institute...

And so the connections continue and spin into the swirl of afternoon coffee at CERN. Picasso by way of Allen by way of Brooklyn and amazonian crocodiles - a cartography of a random conversation which revolves around the beauty of the eye.

For a detailed article about Alan Litke's pioneering work, see

Thursday, 7 October 2010


A dance piece, conversation, floor show, game show and a chance to meet big minds. That’s how MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ fellow and award-winning american choreographer, Liz Lerman bills her latest multi-media piece, ‘The Matter of Origins’. As the title playfully suggests, physics is the main partner for this new work, with dancers making equations with their bodies and pushing gravity to the limits.

But that’s not all. Physics also provides the intellectual framework on which the whole piece hangs. For one hour, in a fusion of dance and physics, dancers both old and young, spin, leap, fall, balance and re-balance through critical moments of atomic and sub-atomic history: Marie Curie and the discovery of radium, the Manhatten project, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the Hubble telescope.

These historical moments also provide the stunning visuals for the scenery too – with the vast swathes of the New Mexico desert surrounding Los Alamos and a video tour of the LHC at CERN projected into the dance space. ‘The Matter of Origins’ is a fusion between the ideas of physics with the physical possibilities - and impossibilities - of dance. The normally reticent Washington Post critically acclaimed the world premiere at the University of Maryland, USA, this September as ‘a work of expansive range, emotional depth and singular beauty.’

The story of how this partnership between dance and physics happened was a total surprise, even to the choreographer. It began with a chance encounter between Liz Lerman, who has run her own dance company Dance Exchange since 1976, with Gordy Kane, a physicist at the University of Michigan and director of the Michigan Centre for Theoretical Physics. He knew that she was interested in science and the impact it has on the way people think about themselves, having seen her previous work ‘Ferocious Beauty: Genome’ which examined the nature of discovery and the implications of research into genetics.

He captivated her interest this time in physics, by telling her about the search for the origins of the universe at CERN, and the mysteries of dark matter. So she came with her company of dancers to CERN for a few weeks in 2007 and then in 2008 to explore making a piece, speaking to the scientists about their ideas, and even dancing in the LHC tunnels and work spaces. And so the beginning of ‘The Matter of Origins’ project was born, and in the process she started discovering many unusual and quirky facts of the history of physics, which appear insignificant but which also nevertheless find their way into her piece.

For example, the extraordinary story of Edith Warner who has hired by Robert Oppenheimer when he was director of Los Alamos to feed the physicists. She ran the Los Alamos tea house, serving her special chocolate cake to amongst others, a scientist she knew as Doctor Baker, but who was in fact Niels Bohr. The audience at the ‘Matter of Origins’ is literally invited to chew over this fact – and many others, including Warner’s secret chocolate cake recipe – because when the dance has finished in Act One, in Act Two they are all unexpectedly swept into a room full of tea, tables and chocolate cake and asked to sit down. At each table is a host – or provacateur as Liz calls them, who is more often than not a physicist – who invites the audience to discuss what they experienced watching the dance piece, as well as the big science and its relation to society and the uncertainty principle and future possibilities. It is an extraordinary and exceptional bravura move which Liz easily explains:

“Act one is in the European terms a multi-media piece, with a video artist and animator as well as the dancers and the science. It is a lot for an audience to take in. In my last science-dance piece, I noticed that the audience lingered and stayed to discuss the piece far more than normal. They didn’t want a post performance discussion: they wanted to be the discussion.

So my idea was to make this happen, giving individuals the change to re-experience what they had just witnessed and to deepen their experience even further.”

Thus, between tea and talk, dancers weave between the tables too, adding yet more dimensions to this piece, including discussions about the uncertainty principle, which Liz says, in many ways, is where every artist stands. ‘For an artist it is always a question of finding momentum and of poise whilst in uncertainty.’

For all the discussion about the uncertainty principle, Liz is also adamant about another aspect of the dance and physics partnership which shows how they share common ground. It isn’t just in the intellectual footwork:

“The arts are the place which can help people find the place where they intersect with science. Awe, imagination and the grit to be relentless to make something work – that’s what scientists and artists both do. What is fascinating in both cases, is the relationships scientists and artists have to making mistakes - how we puzzle over them, and the obsession and passion which ensures that we get it right in the end.”

But as Liz’s piece shows, we may be merely at the beginning. Act Two ends with the beginning of Act One. The end has become a new beginning. Or perhaps it is just the beginning is never ending.

Note: This piece is being published in the next edition of the CERN Courier in November

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


We were chasing the sky to change the colour of a star, through the velvet depths of a late summer night, until we catch one, for one single moment. Only for it to be just as suddenly swallowed whole by the hedgerows and curves and bends of the road.

‘You can only change the colour of the star when you are in line with it,’ you say. ‘When you can really see it in the sky. Try again. Now.’

It seems so impossible. It will never happen. The gyrating geography and slip-slide geometry of the road seem to defy catching the star in my sight for anything more than a nano-second. And there are our twin purposes, too, on this crazy roadtrip:

You – driving at breckneck speed to get me on the last train back to Geneva. But also wanting to show me your art.
I – dialling the telephone number of the star but desperately wanting to catch my last train home.

The number is engaged.

A momentary relaxation of the hedges and the curves and bends in the road suddenly gives way again to a forest which tears down the sky, and the star disappears behind clawing branches. More numbers punched in. The number is now vacant. We are lost again. Reduced again to one pursuit – devil-may-care-speed – with now not a single star in sight. Not even a real one.

It seems an impossible mission. And part of me thinks, do I even want to catch this star? Because if I do, will the change in its colour disappoint? The possibility of changing the colour of a star is so much more poetic, that I feel I want to keep that with me, rather than see the reality.

And as the thought comes, it is replaced by that bright star again. Straight ahead. Just there. No doubt about it.

“Here. Let me.” And you take the mobile with your right hand, whilst steering with your left, and punch in the numbers. I think we will crash. Your concentration is more on the phone than the road, your speed doesn’t diminish, and the wheels hit the banks at the side of the road and then veer into the lines which run like knives beneath us. We are on a collision mission - with what I do not know. It is terrifying.

‘Tiens. Ecoute. Has the star replied? It should say Etoile d’Ai.’ And suddenly I hear the voice of a speaking star. Female. Assured. Conspiratorial. But welcoming. 3, 8, 9, 2 , 1 – I punch in a galaxy of numbers, and sure enough, the star changes colour. Just like that. Honestly it does. Orange. Red, Purple. Green. Yellow and then White again. To change the colour of a star by chasing it in the sky – even the reality turns out to be poetic.

`Originally Etoile d’Ai was set up with a telephone company. But they stopped sponsoring the star when the project ended. Just like that. They turned it off.’ You explain.

Sponsoring a star…

“People would try and ring the star from their homes. Or when they were driving by and it wouldn’t work. I couldn’t let the star die. People were so upset.”

A dying star…

“I knew I had a responsibility to the people who could see it. For them, it had become their friend. Their anchor in the world. Which listened – and responded. They could see it from their gardens. Whisper it their dreams.”

Wishing on a star…

“I even got letters saying your star is the only thing which makes me not feel alone in the world. It gives me a real sense of belonging. It also made me feel so small.”

We all bring stars down to earth the moment we are born.
Stars lodge in our bones and shine in the light in our eyes…
For we are made of stardust and hold whole galaxies within
Perhaps that’s why we love them so much
We are all made of stars

“So I found a way round it. The digital world. It opens up even the heavens to all of us. Even artists. Now anyone can call up the star and change its colour. Just as long as you can see it. It’s free.”

I catch my train. You have shown me your work. All our wishes are fulfilled. The magic. The poetry. The practicality. The reality of it all. Existence in one 20 minute drive. All when we were chasing stars through the deep blue of night that late summer’s evening. Flying across the earth – in a vertigo of stars.

Etoile d’Ai

Thursday, 19 August 2010

It's Only a Matter of Time...

There is a bed at the end of the line. Two pillows side by side, the top sheet turned down. Inviting you to slip between cool sepia sheets. All you have to do, is take the Y bus to CERN, and there it is. A bed. Ready for you. Nakedly present. That is if you notice it at all. The billboard next to it warns in Gothic Germanic script – Es ist nur eine frage der zeit. It is only a question of time.

‘Is it art? Says Josef. ‘I don’t know what art is anymore.’ He puts his head in his hands, in mock despair.

Josef is a mural artist from Texas. He is painting the side of the building which houses the mighty ATLAS detector at CERN. The paints he is using are appropriately made by a company called Lascaux - recalling those earliest marks of humankind.

He has had a day when the art/science question has turned him inside out. I have them too. Just when you think someone understands what you are saying and doing, it all goes upside-down again. It’s been suggested to him that he does a chalk drawing on the ground after he has finished the mural, and that would be a great piece of art, showing the inner workings below ground. He has been shown a sample of what is wanted. Art it aint. Communication it is. It is such a steep hard mountain climb to explain this, so he tells them he doesn’t have the skills. Leaves it diplomatically at that.

What Josef is doing, is taking time on. The artistic tradition and history. That’s what matters. His painting is all about engaging with the history of the mural as the means of depicting and commemorating great and significant events. Think Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Diego Rivera’s Mexican revolutions. Those caves in Lascaux. What is more significant in science at CERN than the collisions at a project which has been over 50 years in the making? Where once there were green fields under the Jura mountains, there is now a whole town, with its bank, post office and travel agency and with hundreds of scattered buildings in a fractal pattern. And all the way along the 27km underground ring, there are mighty detectors, such as ATLAS and CMS, LHcB and ALICE, which can see the invisible. So no wonder Josef wants to mark this moment. And no wonder it is art, because it engages with the tradition of what has gone before and makes science and technology fit for artistic purpose.

‘It’s a Felix Gonsalez–Torres’, says Josef, finally getting off his bike. We both sigh with some kind of relief and look at it, long and hard. Right here at the bus stop under the mountains. In this fractal pattern mock-town. ‘This is art.’ And so the bed turns out to be. So ironic that it is here at CERN, where no-one, but Josef and I, give it a passing glance. So ironic also because of the words on the poster – it is only a question of time. Only last week the Russian press proclaimed that when the LHC is at full speed, it will be the first time machine on earth and we will be able to travel back to the past. How artful is that?

And now suddenly there are beds everywhere. I notice them springing up on billboards on the Route de Servette as I travel back on the tram into Geneva. That same bed. With pillows suggestively blunted as if two heads have laid on them recently. That same deftly turned down sheet, cooly inviting you in. And all the while, these beds mingle with adverts for insurance and investment banking and the ubiquitous watches - those badges of time. The beds are a playful interjection of art between the balance sheets of everyday commercial life in Switzerland. The Fondation Beyeler in Basel, is showing a major Felix Gonsalez-.Torres retrospective, and has playfully let this dead artist loose throughout Switzerland without any fanfare.

The other day Josef pointed out to me another form of time travel – and artistic intervention. This time between the sheets of science. The way art can take you places you never imagined. He tells me about the octagonal Gunbaid Kabud tower in Iran is covered in beautiful tiles in incredibly complex geometric patterns. The tower dates from 1197AD. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that their mathematics was finally understood by the great British physicist Roger Penrose. An example of science imitating art perhaps? Or messages from the past?

Just as I start noticing these new beds, roadside, as the trams snake through the city, the bed at CERN just as suddenly disappears. Only leaving the warning words beside it. It’s only a question of time. I am waiting for those words to vanish too…but maybe they never will

Saturday, 31 July 2010


Let's go for a random walk. Take steps through the day and see where they lead. Or don't. How they pace and place time. Make sense. Or willfully won't. Plant thoughts which blaze like wildfire and light the mind's sky.

The walk begins like this. With words which spill into the coffee-swirl-beginning of the day. How long is it reasonable to hold a grudge? That's what he asks. Do you think 30 years is too long? It's a lifetime I reply. And he tells the story of his thesis in which he wrote a theory which his professor said was impossible and that he was going to fail him. But this bright boy wouldn't give up. Get real, he said to his professor. Get with it.

Makes you wonder. This confidence. The happenstance of discovery. The application too.
How it can defy belief because it's against the grain of time. Get with it, says the boy again. Get real. Repeats his theory, which now is the basis for our understanding about electrical pulses, and graces every text book. Let's go for a random walk, he says.

In a corner of Eastern Europe there is a country where the book is king. Where in the capital city, a giant book presides over its citizens on a sky-high plinth, like Nelson's column. Its pages are open, and in the bridge into the city the name of the book is inscribed on the arches, like an incantation. To belong to this city, you have to be able to recite the words of the book by heart. And naturally, the author of the book is the country's dictator - his words writ large. Get real. Get with it.

Like Isaac Newton did. Put gravity into the forcefield of our consciousness, however much we dream at night that we can fly through the air like bullets fired by destiny. But then Newton renounced physics to become Master of the Mint. Turning his mind to figuring out how to prevent forgery. And theft. Stop the slivering off of bits of silver from the coins of the royal mint. Made a true likeness of the monarch, rather than a blob of ill-conceived recognition. He borrowed from the Florentines, it is true, but he revolutionised coinage as much as he did physics too. From physics to finance - a numbers game - and not such a short random walk after all. Logical steps of persuasion, of experimentation and of audacity. Of a wish to make a mark and make it good. Get real, even. Get real.

But then Newton tricks us all with alchemy and becomes its most impassioned devotee. Walking the line between art and science, mystery and the explained, the unproven and the proven

Look up random walk, and then you discover a term which traverses many terrains. In physics, random walks are an essential part of quantum theory. In finance, stock market prices evolve according to a random walk and thus they can never be predicted. In computer science, random walks are used to estimate the size of the web. In neuro-science, the firing of neurons. And during World War II, a random walk was used to model the distance that an escaped prisoner of war would travel in a given time.

Get real. The random walk is as random as its name suggests. It measures and unmeasures. It speculates and determines. It fixes and dissolves. It prooves and disproves.

And so back to the boy, who is now a man. The boy who tells me about Newton and the Royal mint. About the grudge which still grips him. The man who said no to him. That his insight was too random. A walk on the wild side. Which led him to Wall Street. And science. And calculating the mass of a neutron stars, and so much more. Nothing is certain on a random walk. Purposefully purposeless. Purposelessly purposeful. Even the steps we make. Let alone the paths we take. Let's go for a walk. Expecting everything and nothing. Who knows what or where?

Lightening cracks open a sky as fragile as an egg. Rain etcha-sketches the air. A splash at my heels. An umbrella falls from above as if heaven sent. A drowned, wingless crow in this storm, splayed in a puddle. Then a hand. Pick up. An apology. A stretch-flex and push. Umbrella up. A suspended coracle above my head. Nudged in. Warm eyes. Cold breath. A brief respite. Then sudden parting. Just as swift. Slaloming through the spears of rain. He on his way, me mine. Driven by rain drops and the desire to cut through. Who knows how. Where. Or when, if ever, again.

Sunday, 11 July 2010


We all have music under our skin. We can't hear it. We can't feel it. But it beats in our blood and pulses our being. It's the music of the stars contained in our bodies held within the scaffolding of our bones. Part of Boethius's vision of music in De Musica - musica universalis, musica humana, musica instrumentalatis, musica divina - the sounds of existence. A cosmic numerology which is the data of our creation, creativity, making and doing.

That's what experiments here at the LHC at CERN with the sonification of data make me think of. They have been putting the sound of particles colliding into audio - blasting our appreciation of what makes us to a new dimension. Instead of only looking at the great visual splashes of particles colliding on a computer screen, which are radiant with data, scientists have also been playing with sound - the auditory waves of the universe - to complete our fields of perception. Slower than the speed of light, nevertheless sound waves are the most accurate way of telling time - of appreciating and comprehending the intervals of existence - the micro-milliseconds in which particles move. The ear is quicker than the eye to recognise the nuances of simultaneity, the near miss, the hit, the interactions, and defractions - grasping more fully and truly than the eye, which is a blunt tool for time.

Go to LHC Sound and you will hear some of the work which is happening at the largest of the CERN experiments, ATLAS, led by University College London physicist Dr Lily Asquith working with musician and programmer Ed Chocolate. LHC Sound as it is called, is the software development phase and already composers and musicians have been emailing them for sound files. It is primarily an analysis tool for the outpouring of data at the LHC - but it is also a way of eavesdropping on what is happening. A cosmic musical whispering which has been funded by the Science and Technology Funding Council to capture also the imaginations of the public.

But the LHC Sound at ATLAS work isnt the only work with sound at CERN. Along the 27km elipsis which is the LHC, other experiments such as ALICE are experimenting with sonification of data too, as heard in the piece I did for Radio 3 earlier this year. Have a listen and you can hear the sound of ionisation of electrons on Kathi Voght's site - . Then you realise that aesthetics comes into this too. What choice of tone do you make to represent the sounds of science?

Particles physics is not the only science latching onto the possibilities of sound. A whole work has just been composed by composer Michael Zev Gordon working with musician-anethatist Dr Andrew Morley based on the individual sequencing of the DNA of each member of a 40 strong choir. Singers are literally singing their genes - and music pours out of it. The connections with contemporary music composition ring in your ears. It is being performed at the Royal Society of Medicine in London on July 13th 2010 and is fittingly called Allele.

So in the age of the visual, which we hold in our hands on our iPads and iPhones and can touch the world into being unfurled before us with a tap of ours fingers before our very eyes, the audio universe is staging its own revolution in perception too, taking us back to who we really are. A note of existence. A beat in time. It sounds like the music of the spheres all over again.

Thursday, 8 April 2010


So in the end, the challenge of doing a piece for The Verb, BBC Radio 3 - a beginners guide to the words of particle physics...

Here is the uncut version...a response to the beauty of physics, mixing real voices with an imaginary voice, and sonic interpretations of particle collisions as collected from one of CERN"s detectors...fact meeting fiction, vision meeting precision, imagination meeting application...the beauty of particle physics reflected in the form of the piece...

With thanks to the wonderful physicists who took part and who's playfulness made the piece when they became and described their favourite particles - John Ellis, Michael Doser, Alison Lister, Christine Sutton, Henri Bacachou, Luis Alvarez Gaume, and big thank you too, to Katharina Voight for her sonic interpretations of particles colliding.

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 version produced by Laura Thomas The Verb on April 9th 2010 at 21.15.

But for the meantime here is the full version for you to imagine...


An introductory lexicon to the words for some of the particles you will find in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva, beneath the foothills of the Jura mountains in the 27km ring. Featuring the voices of scientists who work there...showing the playfulness and imagination of particle physics...

Vox is the guide, who may or may not be in the is for you to discover. But Vox changes tempi and rhythm as the words themselves deliberately suggest, in the blink of an when words have deliberate rhymes, the pace is fast and connected and rhymic, running into each other, like particles colliding...the alliteration and repetition is deliberate and a way of conveying collisions...Take-it-Make-It-Hold is as your own for example is said at great speed...and thus the piece reflects the sounds of particles as they interact...the very sounds which Katharina Voight has used to interpret the data of particle physiscs...

Vox is a warm, alto voice - playful and very intimate. She wants you to understand and be as captivated as she is by the world of particle physics and the terms which whirl about.

FX - Sounds of Particles collected at the detector ALICE, September 2009


[starting in a hush of intimacy and thought..]

Close your eyes. For one tightly held moment. This moment here. Now. Or there. Back then. A moment ago. A century ago. A day- an-hour-a milli-second ago. No matter. All matter. Any time now... Just take it-Make it-Hold it as your own.

Eyes closed. Pinpricks of light. Picked out. Like an electric tattoo. Neon bright. Necklace tight. Bright-Light-Tight. Falling before your eyes - a curtain of exquisite rain. Beating out time. Deep-earth-down. Muon down. Until we are here. There. Where. In this tunnel. Beneath your feet. Above your head. Side on. Head on. In no place... Some place. No time at all. No matter. It All matters. Words matter. Here. There. In this peculiar, particular, particle universe:

Muon, Smuon, Gravitino, Quark
Proton, Lepton, Neutrino and Squark
[Coming randomly from different parts of stereo image]

VOX : Dimensions slipping and sliding. Watch your step - it is riddled with holes. Your body is a sieve. A billion neutrinos every second pouring through every centimetre of your skin. The mind's footholds - gone. It's Jorge Luis' Borge's library of Babel, in which the books contain all knowledge, but seemingly mean nothing at all. Where, plucking a book off the shelf, means it melts in your hands, words spilling through your fingers to voice their own thoughts:

INSERT Montage of physicists' voices spinning out :
I am a muon...a neutrino... an anti-proton...a gravitino - the best detective...a Gluon

Slepton, neutrino, proton smuon
Electron, Gravitino, squark, gluon
[random spatial stereo placement]

Let's grab that one. That last one word. Gluon. Hold it fast. Like it's name suggests. Catch it as catch can. Before it slips away:

INSERT: John Ellis as a gluon
Hi I am a gluon. My job is to hold nuclear particles my first job is to hold quarks together inside a you could say I am responsible for holding the whole thing together. I am quite a colourful character, because quarks come in many colours, red, blue, yellow
[Fade under as it continues]

[Cuts in] Quarks? Did he say Quarks? Three Quarks for Mr Marks. That line from Finnegans Wake. The babel and babble of books. A subatomic particle with a literary name. Courtesy of James Joyce. And in the world of quarks. There are three too. Just like the good book says.

INSERT: Alison Lister as top quark

I am called Top Quark but I was originally called truth because my friend that's the bottom, used to be called beauty. They used to have strange too. Truth and beauty sounded nice...but the more pragmatic physics named me top and my friend bottom because Strange was always known as middle.

Truth is a much nicer name, top is not bad though because you can imagine top is a very special - sort of top of the pile.


A quark is one of the smallest building blocks around us. The smallest blocks are quarks and leptons - essentially what makes up nucleus - and protons and neutrons are all made up of quarks and gluons which are the sticky stuff which hold them together

You will find me right in the middle of the collisions...I only exist for a short period of wont actually be able to see me but only what I decay into...


Why stop here? Let's meet another. They may be nearly all greek to me - proton, neutron, electron - but here's one with an Italian ending - thanks to the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi.

INSERT: Christine Sutton as a neutrino

Hello! I am an electron neutrino..The electron neutrino was first discovered in 1956, that was more than 20 years after it had been proposed by a physicist called Wolfgang.Pauli. In fact Pauli was embarrassed about his hypothesis about the neutrino because the neutrino hardly exists at all and it wasn't discovered for some time. You cant' see me.

Electron neutrinos come out all the time, from nuclear reactions in the earth or sun.

In the LHC I'll be zipping out of the collisions which make the protons. Other neutrinos identical to me or some with other names. You know I am here, because occasionally like the invisible man I can ping off something and knock something over, like someone walking along the corridor kicking over a wastepaper basket, without seeing them - so that's a neutrino.

- Sound of a ping. Done as a sting.


Hadron, Neutrino, Meson, Tauon
Electron, Gravitino, Photon, Pion

Proton, neutrino, quark, muon
Electron, gravitino, squark, gluon

Muon, Smuon, Gravitino, Quark
Proton, Lepton, Neutrino, Squark

Words, words everywhere and not a moment to the blink of an eye, a twist of the tongue, names collide:

INSERT Luis Alvarez Gome as gravitino

I am a gravitino. Every time I am produced I can decay if I so desire into a quark or a squark, I always decay into pairs. I am very sociable.

The name was given by Murray Gellman, a great man who gave names. He is the one who invented quarks, and then he imitated Fermi, hence the word gravitino...

If you have nothing better to do, then you invent names, and sometimes stories and theories...[laugh] .You need to be whimsical. Most of the things we are looking at have no names...quarks have colours, tastes and flavours...this is obviously whimsical because they are small, dont last long, and we cant see them...but giving them names you give them pictures...metaphors...


INSERT Alison Lister
Physics is a very down to earth subject which is why when physcists find names, they try and be as creative as possible and one way in which they express their humour or creative sides.

OF Particles colliding...mixed through with a roulette wheel...

Monte Carlo is what we compare the LHC too...casinos...It is a really nice place in the south france...but for us, it is the method that we use to create simulation of the physics which goes on in our detectors...quantum mechanics only predicts a probablily of things and not an absolute outcomes. Monte Carlo probably comes from the fact it has a lots of casinos and that is dominated by probability and so are our simulations techniques.

VOX: [Teasingly] Do you get it now? Is it all making sense? Non sense. All sense? Some sense? All reason and no rhyme. Or all rhyme and no reason. Alice Through the Looking Glass. A real quantum world - if ever I saw one [Irony]:

John Ellis as Higgs Boson
Hi I am the Higgs I have a very weighty role in particle physics...I feel I do a very important job in the world...If I weren't doing my job...If I do my job too well the sun wouldn't shine

If I were a fairy tale character, I would be the cheshire cat...except I would be the cheshire cat with a smile...but eventually I might become a real cat although so far I haven't been discovered...there were previous rounds which looked for me...Fermilab in the united states...but I have been hidden up until now..I really hate being called a god particle...I really wish people didn't call me this.

Look...It's behind you..There in the air. A smile. Lunar wide. A melon grin. A cat's tale/tail ready to be told.


Sound of particles colliding
[Bring up under I am a proton]

[Excited]: We are on the ultimate collision mission.. This millionth of a second dash-dare. A race against time...and light But wait - one nano second. I am all words, me. A proton. The first. The one which does this ring-riding. The super colliding. A million splashes before last Christmas. Millions more happening now. Meeting myself again and again and again...and all these other particles too...again and again and again and again and again and again and again

[REVERB ECHO and fade under and hold then up the other end]:

CHORUS: Muon, Smuon, Gravitino, Quark
Proton, Lepton, Neutrino and Squark

Hadron, Neutrino, Meson, Tauon
Electron, Gravitino, Photon, Pion

Proton, neutrino, quark, muon
Electron, gravitino, squark, gluon

VOX: again and again and again
[Fading up]

[Fear/urgency/assertive for once]

INSERT Michael Doser as anti-proton

I am an anti proton...a designer baby...discovered in the 1960s.

I exist all over the place...half the universe is made of least it was at the beginning...unfortunately it is much lonelier now...and there is no more anti matter in the universe... so I can only be produced in labs but in principle, once I am produced, I exist forever. I am eternal just like protons are.

When I meet my namesake, the proton, we tango around each other in a furious spiral of death..... and then anihilate each other, then once we are both gone, you will know it is me...

10.3 million years later....meetings still matter. They all matter. That meeting made matter. The world we live in. The chair we sit on. The tongue in your head. The flowers in the field. The books we read.

But beyond the pages we turn - there's a place like now. A time like now. All like now. But no now. A positive or negative charge of difference. A time-twin, place-twin, particle-twin, lone-twin. Same difference. Somehow. In this parallel world of super-symmetries.


Proton, anti-proton, muon, smuon,
Neutrino, Sneutrino, Lepton, Slepton

Muon, Smuon, Gravitino, Quark
Lepton, SLepton, SNeutrino, Squark


VOX: NOW....
[Firmly and authoritatively. Pause for 3 an intimate hush]

Close your eyes. For one tightly held moment. This moment here. Now. Or there. Back then. A moment ago. A century ago. A day-an-hour-a milli-second ago. No matter. All matter. Any time now... Just Take-it/Make-it/Hold-it-as-your-own.



Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A Wordful of worlds

Close your eyes. For one tightly held moment. This moment here. Now. Or there. Back then. A moment ago. A century ago. A day-an-hour-a second ago. No matter. All matter. Any time. Now... Just take it. Make it. Hold it as your own.

Eyes closed now. Pinpricks of light. Picked out. Like a tattoo. Neon bright. Necklace tight. Bright-Light-Tight. Falling before your eyes - a curtain of exquisite rain. Beating time. Drilling down. Deep-earth-down, Until we are here. There. Somehow where. In this tunnel. Beneath your feet.In your dream-sleep. Awake in mind. Beside. Self. I. You. Me. They. Beside. Me. Too.

I am reflecting on the way you can recreate the beauty of particles in writing. This month I am composing a piece for BBC Radio 3 to mark the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider. And somehow, however much I try to stick to the brief - to create a lexicon of terms - I feel it all slipping away, and the impulse is to use words like particles instead - as things which change and mutate, can contain their opposite in the beat of millisecond, meaning and sense appearing only to disappear again.

Like everything to do with particle physics, even if you are a scientist, there is the sheer madness of trying to capture for one fleeting second the invisible and the dichotomy that forces you to face, the looking glass you go through, passing to the other side only to see that you are in two places at once and in no place at all.

Keith Tyson is passionate about science, the way it forges new knowledge and breaks boundaries. In my interview with him in this month's Cern Courier, he makes the case for science and art respecting their differences and being quite separate. And somehow this all makes sense. Because in difference, space and distance, we can fully be ourselves. But both have this in common: art and science are means by which we forge new knowledge and sometimes that is lost in our understanding of them. Whilst science creates knowledge through experiments, tried and tested, art creates knowledge in how we relate to the world, each other and to ourselves.

For artists who engage with science, sometimes the challenge is to stay afloat in the swimming pool of knowledge, as the swiss artist Christian Gozenbach has called it. It is so seductive, that sometimes it feels as if the artist may drown in a pool of understanding, where everything is to be prooved, once the possibilities have been explored.

And so back to my pool of words. How to engage with gravitinos and muons and quarks and convey them to an audience who loves words? Do I dive straight into dictionary definitions, or does the act of writing become the process which, just by being, shows the space-time-gravity of the words which are used to denote particles, some of which, may only exist in the imagination of the scientists who dreamt them up? The creative process...experimenting, exploring, then evaluating...same difference and yet something in between...